The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion White women vote Republican. Get used to it, Democrats.

A crowd fills Independence Avenue during the Women's March on Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Lyz Lenz is a journalist and the author of “God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America.

On Jan. 21, 2017, hundreds of thousands of women flooded Washington and other cities across the United States for what has been called the largest single-day protest in American history. In pink “pussyhats,” they protested the inauguration of a president accused of sexual assault whose misogyny had become a feature of his campaign.

This was the rage of women — a force that, we were told, would be a cleansing power in U.S. politics. Hillary Clinton’s loss would be the catalyst for a new era of empowered womanhood. Americans were promised a “pink wave” of self-proclaimed “nasty women” who would reshape the Democratic Party and play a bigger role in government. Indeed, in 2018, a record number of women — notably including Black women and other women of color — were elected to local and federal offices. This, prognosticators said, was the beginning of the revolution.

But what actually happened? Certainly, women made an impressive impact. But consider White women specifically. The 2016 exit polls told us that 52 percent of White women voted for Donald Trump. As with most exit polls, that number turned out to be not quite accurate: By August 2018, a Pew Research analysis estimated that the percentage of White women who voted for Trump in 2016 was actually closer to 47 percent, compared with 45 percent for Clinton. Still not great.

Fast forward to Election Day 2020: Exit polling indicates that Trump’s support had increased among White women, with some major polls putting it at 55 percent. Though we can again expect the eventual figure to be adjusted, the reality of Trump’s support is not likely to change. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

White women are not a swing voting bloc. In the past 18 presidential elections, they have repeatedly voted for the Republican candidate, breaking only for Lyndon B. Johnson and for Bill Clinton’s second term. As political scientist Jane Junn wrote in 2016, “The elephant in the room is white and female, and she has been standing there since 1952.”

This is because, as a political force, White female rage has long been better at enforcing patriarchal norms than dismantling them. Why? Quite frankly, White women benefit from the status quo, while change would require burning down that system and building a new one — one where they and their children might lose the shared superiority and protection they get by being attached to powerful White men.

Sociologist Joseph O. Jewell has described the role White women played in maintaining institutional racism in the late 19th century; his work examines specific instances of what he calls “social mothering” in San Francisco and New Orleans, when White mothers pushed policies that established school segregation.

Protection of the status quo was an argument against women’s suffrage: A pamphlet aimed at housewives distributed by the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage argued that getting the vote would “risk the good we already have for evil which may occur.”

This was also the argument effectively used by Phyllis Schlafly in the 1960s: Equality would be harder. No protection from predatory males. No provision of comfortable homes.

Little has changed. Indeed today, that logic is more insidious: To many White women, equality means dominating the system like men rather than dismantling it to make it fair for everyone.

Keeping the status quo — and voting for it — also allows women to cast others (men or mean feminists) as being responsible for societal problems and dodge their own complicity. They can claim to be victims while victimizing others. That’s the logic of Amy Cooper, who in May called the police on Central Park birdwatcher Christian Cooper, a Black man, falsely saying he was threatening her and putting him in very real danger of unjust arrest or worse, because Black men are at greater risk for experiencing police violence. White female victimhood was on display during the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, when Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Marsha Blackburn claimed that, as conservative women, they found little room in the political sphere. It’s the logic of claiming to be a loser, while winning. Of course, all women, conservative and liberal, at all levels of society, face real discrimination and sexism — but that makes donning the mantle of victimhood while perpetuating the patriarchy an even more cynical game.

White women voting Republican isn’t remarkable. What is remarkable is the amount of money and effort that went to flip suburban women, who had no intention of voting Democratic at all, while other groups of voters were taken for granted. Trump made gains in 2020 among Black voters and Latino voters, two subsets of voters long considered a monolith but who are far more complex and multifaceted than any party gives them credit for and who demonstrated independent thinking that went against predicted behavior.

As we continue to sift through the wreckage of the Trump years, a process that should not stop on Jan. 20, the Democratic Party should stop wasting so much time on the lost cause of suburban wine moms and start listening to the voices that form the core of the party’s base.

Watch Opinions videos:

Post Senior Producer Kate Woodsome talks to Americans who voted for Trump, or simply don't feel like denouncing him, about why they feel wrongly scorned. (Video: The Washington Post)

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